It’s been more than two years since I left this blog alone—this blog, as well as my ambitious plans to continue seeking knowledge after graduating from university. During these years, a lot has happened in my life: I worked, switched jobs, travelled, and learned a lot about people and about myself. Not much has happened in my mental life, however, although I did read sporadically. This past November, I got tired at last of my shallow, convoluted, and chaotic thoughts, and decided to come back home to be a professional hermit and bookworm for some time—to read, to think, to write—to hopefully put my thoughts in order and fill that intellectual void, insha’Allah.
The second book I finished reading completely after getting back was Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain (the first was The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean—a wonderful book about the Periodic Table that rekindled my passion in chemistry. Maybe I will write about it.).
I usually buy books on Amazon, in second-hand bookstores, or at library sales, but I decided to buy a few books at Barnes & Noble over the Thanksgiving weekend because my dad reminded me that if we all start buying books online and only online, then physical bookstores will eventually disappear. So, being an introvert myself and very interested in psychology, I was naturally attracted to this book when I saw it on the “Buy 2, get the 3rd free” sale in B&N, and felt compelled to buy it (along with Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and Dear Life by Alison Munro).
I read the book in two days and found it to be a fairly easy and digestible read, maybe because I was already familiar with a lot of its ideas. The book is divided into four parts: the first part about the “Extrovert Ideal”, how it arose in the United States, why it’s obviously not fair, and how working alone is more effective than working in teams. The second part is an exploration on the biological roots of temperaments and whether we can influence our natural (and partly nurtured) temperament through will alone, with two stories, one about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and another one about Warren Buffet, to illustrate the benefits of how introverts think. The third part points out that the Extrovert Ideal exists mostly in the West, and that characteristics of introversion are in fact appreciated in many Asian cultures. The final part offers advice on how introverts can incorporate some pseudo-extroversion into their lives to achieve goals, while finding the right amount of stimulation, as well as some counsels for couples and parents/children with opposite temperaments.
While reading the book, my rational mind kept reminding me that the presentation of the arguments was one-sided, but emotionally, my heart was saying, maybe even shouting: “Yes! Exactly! Why can’t the world see us, the introverts, for who we are, and appreciate what we can contribute to the world? Will there ever be a day when we can stop pretending to be who we are not? Can we just stop caring so much about social etiquette, first impressions, acting confident and stuff and and just communicate with each other on a deeper level?”
I was made a little more emotional as I remembered many episodes in my own life while reading the book: how I froze in a presentation in high school (and cried immediately afterwards); how I fled from a job fair, embarrassed, disillusioned, and hating myself for my inadequacy; how I was rejected a volunteer position in college because I couldn’t talk well enough; my two failed attempts at sales jobs, etc., etc. Gently, though, the narrative of the book unfolded and therapeutically soothed my pained memories with its positive message—that introverts can be powerful in their own way. Indeed, had I been born more of an extrovert, I might not have spent so much time reading and thinking about the big questions in life, and without all those reflections, I would certainly not have the strength to convert to Islam. In this way, maybe being an introvert gave me the power to not follow the crowd. This, apparently, is a really precious kind of power.
One of the experiments mentioned in the book was the famous Asch conformity experiments, in which some subjects wrongly reported their perception under peer pressure. However, the experiments did not categorically answer the question of whether these students conformed because they were afraid to be different, or because they actually saw the lines differently (normative vs. informational social influence?) . I had always thought that the former must be true, since there were also students who did not conform, but Gergory Berns of Emory University redid the Asch conformity experiments in 2005 with brain-scanning technology and found that some people’s visual perception actually changes with peer pressure. In this way, the group, as the author says, is literally a mind-altering substance:
If the group think the answer is A, you’re much more likely to believe that A is correct, too. It’s not that you’re saying consciously, “Hmm, I’m not sure, but they all think the answer’s A, so I’ll go with that.” Nor are you saying, “I want them to like me, so I’ll just pretend that the answer’s A.” No, you are doing something much more unexpected—and dangerous. Most of Berns’ volunteers reported having gone along with the group because “they thought that they had arrived serendipitously at the same correct answer.” They were utterly blind, in other words, to how much their peers had influenced them.
Upon reading this paragraph, I suddenly understood the ending of George Orwell’s 1984. In the end, Winston really did believe that O’Brien was holding up 5 fingers not 4, and that 2+2=5. He really did love the Big Brother, from the bottom of his heart. He didn’t consciously decide to abandon his previous beliefs. No. His perception of the world, even his logic, had been completely transformed by the Party, the ultimate group. Less extreme versions of the Party may already exist in our very own world, influencing our minds without us even realizing what’s going on…
The book also makes many other interesting points. I don’t know how to connect them in an essay format, so I will just list a few of them (that I remember) in bullet points:
- A teacher talks about how the style of teaching in her school reflects the extrovert ideal of the business community, and says that it’s “an elitism that is based on something other than merit”. I completely agree with that. One thing I have noticed, having gone to school in the U.S. for 10 years, is the strong emphasis of American educational institutions on “leadership” skills. “Why does everyone have to be a leader? If everyone becomes a leader, then who is left to follow them?” I have always thought to myself, wryly.
- Speaking of leaders, there was another interesting point about how introverts make better leaders for proactive employees, because introverts listen better and are more likely to take the suggestions of proactive employees. This! I think my ex-boss was definitely not an introvert, then, because he never really wanted to listen to anything I said. On the other hand, extrovert bosses are more compatible with passive employees.
- Collaboration works great online, but not in the real world. Why? Because when people collaborate online, they don’t actually work together, face to face. They work respectively in solitude, then compile the results collaboratively in the virtual space. This is a great way to work for both introverts and extroverts because people in general can concentrate better and think more deeply when alone. This is not particularly surprising to me, I just wish more people realize that.
- Introverts and extroverts differ in that they need different amounts of stimulation. In fact, every individual has a different optimal level of arousal. The “rubber band theory” states that, we can stretch our personalities, but only up to a point. It’s better to stay in our comfort level so we don’t suffer from losing our authenticity.
I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about introversion and extroversion. Reading this book, I was reminded of my friends, my family, some of them introverts and others extroverts. I now have a deeper understanding of—and have come to appreciate—both types of people, as well as everyone in between. “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other” (Qur’an 49:13) Indeed, it’s the spectrum of differences that exists in human beings that helps us evolve as a species.